A few members of RSA staff offer their reflections on Windrush and the hostile environment – what it means for them personally and what it tells us about British society and its relationship with immigration.
The Windrush scandal is one part of a broken system that decides who does and doesn’t belong in society
The 2018 World Cup starts this month, and it will no doubt create an outpouring of patriotism - until England, inevitably, get knocked out after a disappointing campaign. As our streets, homes and workplaces bubble with excitement, I probably won’t experience the same level of joy, anticipation (and heartbreak) as millions of others. Growing up, despite being an Arsenal fanatic, I never really supported England in international tournaments. Many of my friends - most of whom came from second or third generation immigrant families - shared this same apathy.
Part of the reason we felt this way was because of the deep racism in English football, and among the most passionate England football fans in particular. Seeing excited men draped in St George’s flags may be seen as innocuous or a source of national pride for many, but for us it was a warning that we may be assaulted or racially abused.
It wasn’t just fringe racism that caused our disinterest. It was the everyday experience of ‘Othering’ - of being told that even if we were born or raised in England, we were not truly English; that we didn’t truly belong. This wasn’t restricted to race, it also spilled over into class (the two of course inter-sect). If being portrayed as cultural and ethnic outsiders wasn't enough, our parents and families were also characterised as lazy, work-shy, poverty-trapped benefit scroungers by a national media and political class with a transparent antipathy towards what they saw as an “under-class” that was unproductive to the interests of privileged elites.
This is important because for me, the Windrush scandal (and indeed Grenfell before it) is not just about immigration or race. For years now, we have been creating a “hostile environment” for people that face any form of hardship or disadvantage. I do not distinguish the experiences of the Windrush generation from the experiences of poor and disabled people being sanctioned or denied benefits by an aggressively punitive state that tells them they don’t matter; that tells them they’re not really disabled; and that tells them they’re a drag on society. Nor is it distinguishable from working class families having their homes taken away through “redevelopment” and forced to leave their neighbourhoods because they’re not the right demographic.
For far too long, our major social, economic and political institutions have been actively dismantling the sense of belonging that many of us feel to society (contributing to the current age of polarity). It may just be one small symptom of a much wider malaise, but is it not sad that because of this, a child in an English town or city somewhere may not feel joy next month, even if their country goes on to win the greatest prize in sporting history?
The hostile environment means international students are little more than cash cows
The hostile environment permeates education systems in the UK. International students studying in the UK are regarded as “cash cows”, in particular postgraduate students, who pay anywhere between £15,000 to £30,000 a year for their degrees. This is roughly twice as much as fees EU and British students are required to pay. Despite the caricature of international students as super-wealthy, the majority struggle to get by.
For those fortunate enough to make it here, visa and maintenance costs are astronomical to say the least. Students as of 2018 have to pay £348 in visa application fees, along with an NHS surcharge of £300 per year. That’s not the only hurdle though, because in the true spirit of a hostile environment, the Home Office has recently asked 7000 students to leave in error, leaving some without a right to rent, and others in detention.
If, like most people, you seek employment after your studies, the costs keeps piling on, with the Home Office making massive profits off of visa applications and fees. Immigration policy and regulations are jargon heavy and difficult for the average person to understand without the help of a lawyer (and are we really going to have to talk about lawyer fees as well?). It is a system designed to make you fail, and if not that, leave you a nervous wreck for months on end. Work permits cost anywhere between £700 to £1,400, and applications for indefinite leave to remain now cost £2,389. If you came here as a student, educated in the same universities as every other British citizen, and choose to become a tax paying resident, you will pay thousands of pounds into the British immigration system and still live in fear that one day, the rules will change again, and you’ll have to leave behind a life you’ve built up.
Britain must honour the promise of welcome made to migrant communities.
An estimated 3.7 million European migrants, like me, have built their lives in the United Kingdom on the assumption that free movement and the right to permanent residence would hold true. It’s no stretch to draw parallels between the post-Soviet EU14 migrants and the Windrush generation. Windrush migrants arrived in Britain following WWII in response to labour shortages, and at a time of post-colonial independence and the promise of peace. A similar ‘never again’ moment shaped EU accession for post-Soviet countries, and the accompanying freedom of movement. The fall of the Berlin Wall promised a new era of European cooperation and unity.
Both of these historical ‘moments’ and the accompanying rhetoric that characterised them were fleeting and quickly replaced with hostility, aggression and alienation towards migrants in a well-worn and familiar pattern. What struck me most about the Windrush scandal was the surprise that it was met with, when Britain’s particularly problematic relationship with immigration is centuries in the making, ingrained in the nation’s fabric, and a lived daily experience for countless migrants. After all, the past fifty years are pockmarked with a series of laws passed to limit, complicate or simply eject, from the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act to the 2014 Immigration Act that institutionalised the now infamous hostile environment.
This legacy is precisely why freedom of movement has always been a bitter pill for those on both sides of the British political spectrum to swallow, forming the bedrock of the Brexit campaign. Ingrained fears of losing control of immigration have been such a fundamental part of the British national consciousness that EU accession was deeply unpopular from the get go. The Immigration Act was passed less than a decade after millions of families from the EU14 made the life changing decision to move to the UK. Their children will be coming of age as the UK leaves the EU, with a high likelihood that their rights, once guaranteed, will be stripped back or taken away. Windrush, the EU14 and countless generations of migrants outlive kneejerk policy and scapegoating in times of crises. As a society, we have a responsibility to honour the decision of millions to uproot their lives and move thousands of miles on the promise of welcome and legitimacy, instead of engineering social conditions that sharpen difference and encourage hostility.